Home Entertainment The show must go on—and it does—with the returning GLOW’s “Up, Up, Up” – The A.V. Club

The show must go on—and it does—with the returning GLOW’s “Up, Up, Up” – The A.V. Club

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For those familiar with the real-life G.L.O.W., there was always the question of when—if ever—Netflix’s GLOW was going to take its show on the road. Specifically to Las Vegas, as that’s where the original series was filmed—at the Riviera—in the first place. GLOW, instead, took some additional steps to get there, opting to first tell a story about G.L.O.W. through the context of women in Hollywood in the 1980s, before making the jump. In this case, Vegas exists as an alternative to their television show, the only thing that even allows these women to continue to play the characters they came up with in the first place (as their former network’s ownership rights prevent them from using the characters on TV). While GLOW season two saw the rise of G.L.O.W., season three is technically somewhat of a fall, going from a syndicated show that was gaining traction with a rabid fanbase, to a repetitive Vegas act (at a tacky Vegas casino) where no one knows who the girls are or what they do.

That’s not even the most depressing aspect of the (still funny) GLOW third season premiere, “Up, Up, Up,” as it is an episode that has the tragedy of the Challenger shuttle explosion looming over both it and Ruth the whole time. Honestly, it’s quite the choice to start off a season, but it’s not just a big shocking moment to get things going: In its most simple form, the Challenger explosion is GLOW’s way of letting us know where and when we are for the girls (January 28, 1986), right before it fills us in on the fact that they have three months of shows to look forward to. Or to dread, if the fact that they’re already bored of during the opening night rehearsal stage is any indication. They’re technically starting all over again, despite establishing these characters over the past two seasons.

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And despite the fact that it’s only opening night, the aforementioned repetitive nature of the Vegas version of G.L.O.W. is palpable throughout this episode. It seems the show is a mix of what we saw in the first two seasons, culminating in the season two finale wedding—for audience participation—and battle royal. Every night. For three months. Especially during rehearsals, where Sam goes through the motions even more than usual. (“Flag. Flag.” “And deja vu, Welfare Queen steals the crown.”) His and Debbie’s blah approach to the rehearsal—while Bash spends the whole time on the phone because of his opening night party—suggests they’ve already done this run through many, many times before. Only now, there’s Ruth with her Challenger guilt threatening to ruin the whole show in her attempt to address the national tragedy on opening night.

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Speaking of, the opening scene is just the right amount of hacky, “we know where this is going” joke, made better by the fact that Ruth takes everything extremely hard after it. (The episode doesn’t go full comedy of errors over this and the eventual idea that Jenny’s cursed, though it fakes us out with the potential incense fire and does allow for the gags over Bash’s party originally being space-themed.) Ruth has the luxury of Zoya the Destroya being so over-the-top that she’s never had to have a moment where she worries about people truly hating her the way they have Arthie’s Beirut. Until now. Sort of.“Up, Up, Up” doesn’t suggest that anyone in Vegas feels that way about her after the broadcast—though I imagine those words traumatized a number of fictional Vegas youth, which is how you eventually get The Killers in this universe—but the guilt that comes from it still works.

The opening scene is also the perfect reminder that meme culture, thankfully, didn’t exist in the ‘80s. I mean, Zoya even spits on the mission, before sarcastically saying she hopes it doesn’t run out of gas.

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While Ruth is overcome with guilt, the other characters’ reactions are also appropriate, even the inappropriate ones. From Carmen’s ridiculous optimism and Sheila’s pragmatism to Bash’s late realization of how the tragedy affects him (and his party) to the huddle around CNN’s 24-hour TV coverage to the moving on from the moment altogether. That last one can be a commentary on personal selfishness, but it’s really a reminder that the show must go on. Onwards and upwards and what have you.

Outside of the main plot, “Up, Up, Up” is worth discussing for the hard visual shift the series has taken by its latest move, this time to a Vegas hotel and casino. The opening tracking shot is your standard “Welcome to Vegas” shot, only focusing (as usual for GLOW) on the least glamorous part of it all, with Jenny walking the halls, carrying breakfast. It’s followed by the shots of everyone in their respective rooms (where they still share rooms)—including newlyweds Bash and Rhonda in their penthouse—which quickly shows how some things haven’t changed, even if the setting has, for the tackier. In fact, everything around them is even tackier and more flamboyant than professional wrestling and G.L.O.W., to the point that no one bats an eyelash at any point over their G.L.O.W. wedding costumes outside during the false alarm or when they’re at the craps table. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, etc. Episode director Claire Scanlon succeeds in being the first director of the season to capture how simultaneously big and small Vegas is, which is something that works for how big and small G.L.O.W. (and GLOW) is. Despite how repetitive the show-within-the-show has gotten, the budget for it has clearly gotten bigger, essentially the trade-off for “selling out.” It’s interesting that TV was actually still part of the grassroots, DIY phase of G.L.O.W., but that’s the story Liv Flahive and Carly Mensch have told and continue to tell, and it has somehow worked.

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In the shift from LA to Vegas (R.I.P. LA To Vegas), Bash has acclimated to Vegas relatively well, though he’s also an anxious mess in the process. (In fact, Bash is now simultaneously the most “Chris Lowell character” that has ever existed and the least.) With this episode, the green card/unconfirmed beard marriage between Rhonda and Bash seemingly turns real, with Rhonda telling her she loves him, after originally making clear it wasn’t going to be a real marriage. For as messy as Bash’s sexuality is (in terms of the series’ presentation) and as neurotic as he is, it’s understandable that Rhonda would fall in love with him. Despite his less flattering characteristics and choices, he’s ultimately a decent guy who cares about people (when he’s not too wrapped up in himself) and cares even more about everyone liking him. And Rhonda has no problem getting everyone to like her, because, well, she’s Rhonda. As Bash throws himself into his work, wanting to prove he can be a real boy—or more importantly, a “real man,” schmoozing and hobnobbing with real producers—of course that would draw Rhonda in. She’s now in the rare position to see how hard he actually works, so while Debbie is able to make a reasonable crack to Ruth about how it’s Bash’s name on the marquee (“Bash Howard Productions”) instead of theirs, from Rhonda’s perspective, her husband deserves that recognition. She wouldn’t have even thought about that at all before this arrangement.

Considering the era setting and “playing for the cheap seats” concept of pro wrestling in general, Bash’s sexuality has been the most subtle story in all of GLOW. Sometimes to its detriment, as it’s not exactly been the easiest to parse, especially now with his real marriage to Rhonda. Bash could honestly be bisexual and not gay, but the part of the character that’s attracted to men would still be such a major no-no for him (because of his family and world, as well as the AIDs crisis) that would explain the spiral we saw in season two. But especially after the second season finale, I saw people who misconstrued the wedding as the series dropping Bash’s definitely-not-heterosexual sexuality altogether, instead of as his last-minute effort to no longer be alone and to avoid Florian’s fate. While it’s a brief moment in this episode, when Bash is venting to Rhonda about why he’s having so much trouble with this party, despite previously being a party king himself, he points out that it’s a combination of not being back home in LA, not knowing most of the people on the guest list, wanting to prove that he can hang with the real, big producers in Vegas—and then he stops short at one more point. “I don’t have…,” he says, not finishing the statement, but the thought is complete: He doesn’t have Florian. He’s incomplete, without Florian.

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But despite his anxiety, for a man who loves his flamboyant, larger-than-life characters in professional wrestling, Vegas is a natural fit for Bash. As is that Elvis jumpsuit. Really, no matter Bash’s sexuality, GLOW knows it’s got to ask the question: How could you not fall in love with Rhonda? This is the woman who runs down from her penthouse—where she planned the party with her husband and put out a lot of fires for him—so that she can ride the elevator back up there with the rest of the G.L.O.W. Girls. It still can’t be stated enough how good Singer-Songwriter Kate Nash is on this show or how very important it is that, three seasons in, the series hasn’t gone the easy route and just made Rhonda “the dumb one.” Because what she’s always lacked in book smarts—unlike her gimmick Britannica—she’s always made up for in emotional intelligence. So when I talk about how it’s impossible not to fall in love with Rhonda, I don’t even necessarily mean romantically: Just note the look Bash gives Rhonda when she asks “where in” space the Challenger’s going. It’s one of the purest, sweetest moments in the entire episode, not full of the loaded nature of the Sam/Ruth scene, even though Bash’s entire relationship with Rhonda is loaded.

Really, the thing that has always made G.L.O.W. work, even when it doesn’t quite work, is its ability to make you fall in love with all of its characters. Even Dawn and Stacey, who are purely comedic relief, but based on what we see of their Biddies work in Vegas, must absolutely kill with the Fan-Tan crowd.

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As fun as it is to see the wrestling matches and aspects of the G.L.O.W. show (whether it’s on syndicated TV or now the Vegas stage), GLOW’s bread and butter is these characters and the friendships they’ve forged, collectively and individually. The camaraderie in all of their differences, in all of their quirks is what really makes GLOW work, even when it’s not focused on the in-ring. It’s why them all turning into children during a moment of silence because of balloons is able to get Ruth back into show mode and why that turn actually works. It’s why the season premiere ending on all of them loading into an elevator to the penthouse is such a perfect note. That’s why it’s a big moment—even as an actual little moment—when Debbie gets the casino chips for the girls and has them all play craps together: A moment of Debbie actively attempting team-building and hanging out with the girls still goes a long way, especially when she’s able to do it as naturally as she does here. The same goes for her giving them a pre-opening night pep talk at the same time Sam is giving what seems like a genuinely heartfelt one on the PA. (He tells Bash it was his “best pep talk,” and based on the start, it actually sounded like it. But based on Sam, it probably ended poorly.)

It also means something that when Debbie’s giving Ruth the pep talk at the marquee, she specifically tells her she’s cheering her up “as [her] producer,” as, three seasons in, she’s still not going to utter the word “friend” near Ruth after everything that’s happened. And even more notably, Ruth doesn’t even acknowledge that moment, which she would have in those first two seasons. Considering how deliberate every moment of reaction from Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin is, this lack of reaction speaks volumes. GLOW is such a small show about such a big world, which—despite the existence of The Wrestler—is something I genuinely can’t imagine many other people getting right. The instinct would be to make everything bigger in the behind-the-scenes, most likely to the detriment of taking everything seriously. Big, life-changing things happen here, but the series doesn’t rely on the soap opera approach of wrestling to tell them. So even though this premiere takes place in Vegas, that doesn’t mean the series becomes ultimately is any bigger (especially for a place that’s actually smaller) than it was before in the very sprawling yet never as “on” world of Los Angeles.

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If there’s one thing the first two seasons have proven, it’s that GLOW always starts off slow, but once it gets going, it’s the rare Netflix series where its episode-length and season order just aren’t enough. You want these characters to stick around. “Up, Up, Up” is a warm welcome and return to our gorgeous ladies of wrestling, but it’s only barely the beginning of this particular adventure. In terms of getting us acclimated to this new setting, even if the characters aren’t fully there, “Up, Up, Up” does that perfectly. The Challenger explosion is somewhat of an albatross during this episode, but that’s also what it’s supposed to be—that is Flahive and Mensch’s intention and one that captures the actual impact of an American national tragedy like that, including the nature of “the show must go on” and somewhat self-centered moving on past that. Jenny and Sam both separately acknowledge what a weird day this is, which it, of course, is.

The one thing that sticks out in this episode—in how it almost doesn’t stick out at all—is Sam’s lack of participation outside of the rehearsal and then final will-they-won’t-they scene with Ruth. As for the scene with Ruth, while Marc Maron’s surprising turn as Sam Sylvia makes the Sam/Ruth relationship actually work overall, the final scene between the two of them in his room feels tacked on, even though Maron and Brie still play the awkwardness well. As for the Vegas show itself, the boredom is clearly there, but as is the fact that he has nothing to really do—and as such, as the series currently stands, Maron might not have an actual place here anymore. The girls could do this show (all 40 cues) in their sleep, which is quite the way to start a season of GLOW: The G.L.O.W. Girls can literally sleepwalk through their wrestling show. That should make for an… interesting season.

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Stray observations

  • Chris Lowell is now officially a series regular. I figured it was his contract with Graves that prevented that in the first place, and now that is no longer a factor. Ellen Wong, however, is still a guest star, and—without spoiling anything this season—that continues to be one of the most baffling choices (to me) of the entire series.
  • Zoya: “Why you so proud of Challenger? ‘Challenger’ means second place. Is terrible name.”
    Bash: (laughs) “Good one, Ruth.” Oh, Bash. Also, he and Rhonda wear matching pajamas.
  • Based on what Carmen eats for breakfast, I guess that makes her an official member of Bread Club.
  • Zoya: ”Bye bye. Hope you don’t run out of gas.”
    Liberty Belle: “At least we can afford it. Gosh, would you look at that glorious display of American genius, soaring across the sky. Hey, it’s like a shooting star.” As usual, Betty Gilpin’s face does the work of a thousand actors, as Ruth keeps going on in character and you don’t see the Challenger, but you do see Debbie’s slow reaction to what’s happened. Besides the fact that she insulted the Challenger before and as it exploded—and her character-breaking “Oh my god.” is such an understated moment from Brie—Ruth took things as hard as she did because her father is an eighth-grade science teacher, who ended up showing his students a bunch of teachers blowing up.
  • As far as wrestlers performing in the shadow of tragedy goes, WWE (then WWF) experienced this post-9/11 for an episode of SmackDown. It’s probably for the best that Ruth didn’t get her way about tackling the subject, because that’s how you get this.
  • Ruth: “What’s wrong with CNN?! Why do they keep replaying something this sad?!” Good question, Ruth. Stellar question.
  • We still don’t know much about Reggie, but I do believe she would totally choose to sleep over watching the Challenger.
  • Here, we meet Geena Davis’ Sandy Devereaux St. Clair, the entertainment director at the Fan-Tan Casino and the living embodiment of Vegas. Debbie doesn’t like her, Bash is all about sucking up to her, and in another life, Sam would’ve slept with her. She’s not necessarily a fan of wrestling, but she is a fan of any show that makes the Fan-Tan money and gets people into the casino (which is, ultimately, G.L.O.W.’s purpose, not art).
  • Does Bash actually know of Fluff L’Coque or was he just being agreeable with Sandy? We see that he definitely knows the Vegas big shots—like Rhapsody director/choreographer Bernie Rubenstein—since he wants to be one of them.
  • Debbie: “I don’t like her.”
    Sam: “Well, sure. Nobody like the Ghost of Christmas Future.”
    Debbie: “I forgot how much I love talking to you.” Producer Debbie continues to think she (and all three members of the Cerberus/Three Musketeers) has any power when she doesn’t, which is why she thinks at first they can convince Sandy to push the opening night a few days.
  • Bash: “Sam, she’s my wife, who I get to marry every night. Over, and over, and over again.” What a hilariously terrifying line. Bash is fine. He’s totally fine. In fact, the fact that Chris Lowell deserves the line as such, without a hint of irony, makes it even funnier. Bash is so performative when it comes to mentioning his wife, but again, how could he not love Rhonda?
  • Not only does the marquee say Bash Howard Productions, the reporter during the local news broadcast calls it “Bash Howard’s G.L.O.W.,” and despite the fact that apparently he and Debbie did the Vegas magazine photoshoot together (and she even set it up), the magazine ended up making it a cover story all about Bash. Not very Three Musketeers, huh?
  • Debbie’s sleeping with 25-year-old valets whose names she can’t keep straight, because she’s single and she’s in Vegas. Debbie is clearly thriving.
  • Arthie and Yolanda are also thriving—and clearly very much out to the rest of the G.L.O.W. Girls—as Arthie’s opening night present to Yolanda is (a bag of) flour and a nerdy explanation that goes into the pun she was going for.

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